repost of last message

Mon, 19 Oct 1998 09:04:23 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: repost of last message
Date: Mon, 19 Oct 1998 09:04:23 -0400 (EDT)

This last message has turned out garbled in the archive, so it may also=20
be garbled in your mail boxes. Apologies if you recevied a garbled=20
message, and apologies if you are receving a duplicate.

Here it is again:

Let=92s look in more detail at some examples of alleged imitation in=20
chimps from the well-known work of Jane Goodall (1988). Goodall=92s=20
index references five pages on this subject (pp. 98, 106, 110, 228, 242).

On p. 98 Goodall says:

=93Quickly Evered [a chimp] sucked the liquid from his homemade sponge=20
[made from chewed leaves] and poked it down into the hollow once more. =20
At that moment Gilka [another chimp] came up and watched him closely. =20
When he moved away she made a tiny sponge and pushed it into the hollow,=20
but it seemed that all the water had gone. She dropped her sponge and=20
wandered off.=94

Imitation? Not very convincing, as Gilka could have=20
previously independently learned how to make the =91sponge=92 tool,=20
and this reinforced behaviour was simply released by the sight of=20
Evered sucking water from his own sponge.

On p. 106:

=93...Flint [a juvenile] nearly always rode on Flo=92s [his mother=92s] bac=
k or=20
else dangled beside her while she walked the mountains. This was not=20
surprising, since all infants after a certain age start riding their=20
mothers rather than clinging on beneath; but we were astonished to see=20
that Fifi [Flint=92s elder sister], when next we saw her take Flint, also=
tried to push him onto her back. This was surely an example of learning
by direct observation of her mother=92s behaviour.=94

=93Surely=94? Hmmm.... I don=92t know how Goodall can be so confident. Pe=
Flint was simply of an age when it was no longer comfortable for his elder=
sister to allow him to cling beneath her. As an example of imitation, this=
is pretty underwhelming.

On p. 110:

=93When termites are spilled onto the surface of the heap, older chimps=20
mop them up with the backs of their wrists: the termites become entangled=
in the hairs and are picked off with the lips. It was soon after the=20
termite season began that Flint started to mop things - the ground, his=20
own legs, his mother=92s back as he rode along, anything but termites.=94

Again difficult to interpret. Flint might have observed mopping behaviour=
during the termite season, and have started imitating it, but on the other=
hand mopping may be an instinctive action which simply happened to begin=20
in Flint coincidentally with the termite season. The fact that Flint=20
mopped at random, would seem to support this alternative, non-imitative,=20

p.228, describing a termite fishing expedition using sticks as tools to=20
extract termites from the mound:

=93He [Merlin, a juvenile] still jerked his tools from the holes rather=20
than withdrawing them with the care of an adult. It was indeed strange -=
particularly as Miff [his mother] was a keen termite-fisher and Merlin=20
must have spent many hours with her while she worked heap after heap.=94

Well, it=92s only strange if you assume that Merlin would learn by imitatio=
from Miff. Merlin never seems to learn anything and later dies. But=20
whether you take Merlin to have been deficient in his capacity to imitate,=
or whether he was simply very unintelligent by chimp standards and was=20
unable to learn by individual reinforcement etc, is entirely undecidable=20
on the basis of the story.

And finally on p.242:

=93For it seems almost certain that, although the ability to manipulate=20
objects is innate in a chimpanzee, the actual tool-using patterns practiced=
by the Gombe Stream chimpanzees are learned by the infants from their elder=
s. =20
We saw one very good example of this. It happened when a female had=20
diarrhea: she picked a large handful of leaves and wiped her messy bottom. =
Her two-year old infant watched her closely and then twice picked leaves=20
and wiped her own clean bottom.=94

Now, that=92s more like it. Pity it=92s the only example of that quality. =
In summary, I see no reason to assume that imitation plays any large role=
in the =91culture=92 of chimps. The =91actual tool-using patterns practice=
d by=20
the Gombe Stream chimpanzees=92 may simply be a reflection of what is=20
available in the stream environment, and their use is a product of=20
individual reinforced learning within that environment.

Finally a couple of cracking quotes for collectors of political=20


=93When a chimpanzee is suddenly frightened he frequently reaches to touch=
or embrace a chimpanzee nearby, rather as a girl watching a horror film=20
may seize her companion=92s hand.=94


=93When chimpanzees are overjoyed by the sight of a large pile of bananas=
they pat and kiss and embrace one another rather as two Frenchmen may=20
embrace when they hear good news.=94

Seriously though, Goodall's detailed descriptions show many=20
examples of chimp culture, but apart from the bottom-wiping=20
episode above, there would seem to be no particular reason to=20
interpret this as mediated by imitation rather than by individual=20
learning through reinforcement. I reckon that either view is=20
possible (and Goodall takes the view that it is imitation), but=20
that individual learning is probably the most parsimonious=20
explanation in view of the limited evidence.

Finally, regarding learning in frogs. Frogs cannot distinguish=20
between a real snake and a piece of coloured wire (ref. a book by=20
Marion Stamp Dawkins, I had it on Saturday but I seem to have=20
misplaced it). Is it very likely that an animal so unintelligent=20
could imitate???

Goodall J (1988) In the Shadow of Man. Rev. ed. Weidenfeld and Nicolson,=


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